Chemotherapy - Article Cancer Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is the use of chemical substances to treat disease. In its modern-day use, it refers primarily to cytotoxic drugs used to treat cancer.
In its non-oncological use, the term may also refer to antibiotics (antibacterial chemotherapy). In that sense, the first modern chemotherapeutic agent was Paul Ehrlich's arsphenamine, an arsenic compound discovered in 1909 and used to treat syphilis. This was later followed by sulfonamides discovered by Domagk and penicillin G discovered by Alexander Fleming.
Other uses of cytostatic chemotherapy agents (including the ones mentioned below) are the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, the treatment of some chronic viral infections such as Hepatitis, and the suppression of transplant rejections (see immunosuppression and DMARDs).
The era of chemotherapy began in the 1940s with the first uses of nitrogen mustards and folic acid inhibitors. Cancer drug development since then has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry. The targeted-therapy revolution has arrived, but the principles and limitations of chemotherapy discovered by the early researchers still apply.
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells due to damage to DNA (mutations) and, occasionally, due to an inherited propensity to develop certain tumours. Autoimmune diseases arise from an overactive immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body - in other words, the body attacks its own cells. In contrast, transplant rejection happens because a normal healthy human immune system can distinguish foreign tissues and attempts to destroy them. Also the reverse situation, called graft-versus-host disease, may take place.
Broadly, most chemotherapeutic drugs work by impairing mitosis (cell division), effectively targeting fast-dividing cells. As these drugs cause damage to cells they are termed cytotoxic. Some drugs cause cells to undergo apoptosis (so-called "cell suicide").
Unfortunately, scientists have yet to be able to locate specific features of malignant and immune cells that would make them uniquely targetable (barring some recent examples, such as the Philadelphia chromosome as targeted by imatinib). This means that other fast dividing cells such as those responsible for hair growth and for replacement of the intestinal epithelium (lining) are also affected. However, some drugs have a better side-effect profile than others, enabling doctors to adjust treatment regimens to the advantage of patients in certain situations.
As chemotherapy affects cell division, tumours with high growth fractions (such as acute myelogenous leukemia and the lymphomas, including Hodgkin's disease) are more sensitive to chemotherapy, as a larger proportion of the targeted cells are undergoing cell division at any time.
Chemotherapeutic drugs affect "younger" tumours (i.e. less differentiated) more effectively, because at a higher grade of differentiation, the propensity to growth usually decreases. Near the center of some solid tumours, cell division has effectively ceased, making them insensitive to chemotherapy. Another problem with solid tumours is the fact that the chemotherapeutic agent often does not reach the core of the tumour. Solutions to this problem include radiation therapy (both brachytherapy and teletherapy) and surgery.
The majority of chemotherapeutic drugs can be divided in to: alkylating agents, antimetabolites, anthracyclines, plant alkaloids, topoisomerase inhibitors, and antitumour agents. All of these drugs affect cell division or DNA synthesis and function in some way.
Some newer agents don't directly interfere with DNA. These include the new tyrosine kinase inhibitor imatinib mesylate (Gleevec® or Glivec®), which directly targets a molecular abnormality in certain types of cancer (chronic myelogenous leukemia, gastrointestinal stromal tumors).
Where available, Anatomical Therapeutic Chemical Classification System codes are provided for the major categories.
Alkylating agents (L01A)
See main article: alkylating agent
Alkylating agents are so named because of their ability to add alkyl groups to many electronegative groups under conditions present in cells. Cisplatin and carboplatin, as well as oxaliplatin are alkylating agents.
See main article: antimetabolite
Anti-metabolites masquerade as purine ((azathioprine, mercaptopurine)) or pyrimidine - which become the building blocks of DNA. They prevent these substances becoming incorporated in to DNA during the "S" phase (of the cell cycle), stopping normal development and division. They also affect RNA synthesis. Due to their efficiency, these drugs are the most widely used cytostatics.
Plant alkaloids and terpenoids (L01C)
These alkaloids are derived from plants and block cell division by preventing microtubule function. Microtubules are vital for cell division and without them it can not occur. The main examples are vinca alkaloids and taxanes.
Vinca alkaloids (L01CA)
Vinca alkaloids bind to specific sites on tubulin, inhibiting the assembly of tubulin into microtubules (M phase of the cell cycle). They are derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus (formerly known as Vinca rosea). The vinca alkaloids include: -
Podophyllotoxin is a plant-derived compound used to produce two other cytostatic drugs, etoposide and teniposide. They prevent the cell from entering the G1 phase (the start of DNA replication) and the replication of DNA (the S phase). The exact mechanism of its action still has to be elucidated.
The substance has been primarily obtained from the American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Recently it has been discovered that a rare Himalayan Mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum) contains it in a much greater quantity, but as the plant is endangered, its supply is limited. Studies have been conducted to isolate the genes involved in the substance's production, so that it could be obtained recombinantively.
Taxanes are derived from the Yew Tree. Paclitaxel is derived from the bark of the European Yew Tree while Docetaxel is derived from the pine needle of the Pacific Yew Tree Taxanes enhance stability of microtubules, preventing the separation of chromosomes during anaphase. Taxanes include: -
Topoisomerase inhibitors (L01CB and L01XX)
Topoisomerases are essential enzymes that maintain the topology of DNA. Inhibition of type I or type II topoisomerases interferes with both transcription and replication of DNA by upsetting proper DNA supercoiling.
- Some type I topoisomerase inhibitors include camptothecins: irinotecan and topotecan.
- Examples of type II inhibitors include amsacrine, etoposide, etoposide phosphate, and teniposide. These are semisynthetic derivatives of epipodophyllotoxins, alkaloids naturally occurring in the root of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).
Antitumour antibiotics (L01D)
See main article: antineoplastic
The most important immunosuppressant from this group is dactinomycin, which is used to in kidney transplantations.
Several malignancies respond to hormonal therapy. Strictly speaking, this is not chemotherapy. Cancer arising from certain tissues, including the mammary and prostate glands, may be inhibited or stimulated by appropriate changes in hormone balance.
- Steroids (often dexamethasone) can inhibit tumour growth or the associated edema (tissue swelling), and may cause regression of lymph node malignancies.
- Prostate cancer is often sensitive to finasteride, an agent that blocks the peripheral conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.
- Breast cancer cells often highly express the estrogen and/or progesterone receptor. Inhibiting the production (with aromatase inhibitors) or action (with tamoxifen) of these hormones can often be used as an adjunct to therapy.
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists (GnRH), such as goserelin possess a paradoxic negative feedback effect followed by inhibition of the release of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone), when given continuously.
Dosage of chemotherapy can be difficult: if the dose is too low, it will be ineffective against the tumor, while at excessive doses the toxicity (side-effects, neutropenia) will be intolerable to the patient. This has led to the formation of detailed "dosing schemes" in most hospitals, which give guidance on the correct dose and adjustment in case of toxicity. In immunotherapy, they are in principle used in smaller dosages than in the treatment of malign diseases.
In most cases, the dose is adjusted for the patient's body surface area, a composite measure of weight and height that mathematically approximates the body volume. The BSA is usually calculated with a mathematical formula or a nomogram, rather than by direct measurement.
Most chemotherapy is delivered intravenously, although there are a number of agents that can be administered orally (e.g. melphalan, gemcitabine, capecitabine, vinorelbine). Depending on the patient, the cancer, the stage of cancer, the type of chemotherapy, and the dosage, IV chemotherapy may be given on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. For continuous, frequent or prolonged IV chemotherapy administration, various systems may be surgically inserted into the vasculature to maintain access. Commonly used systems are the Hickman line, the Port-a-Cath or the PICC line. These have a lower infection risk, are much less prone to phlebitis or extravasation, and abolish the need for repeated insertion of peripheral cannulae.
There are a number of strategies in the administration of chemotherapeutic drugs used today. Chemotherapy may be given with a curative intent or it may aim to prolong life or to palliate symptoms.
Combined modality chemotherapy is the use of drugs with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery. Most cancers are now treated in this way. Combination chemotherapy is a similar practice which involves treating a patient with a number of different drugs simultaneously. The drugs differ in their mechanism and side effects. The biggest advantage is minimising the chances of resistance developing to any one agent.
In neoadjuvant chemotherapy (preoperative treatment) initial chemotherapy is aimed for shrinking the primary tumour, thereby rendering local therapy (surgery or radiotherapy) less destructive or more effective.
Adjuvant chemotherapy (postoperative treatment) can be used when there is little evidence of cancer present, but there is risk of recurrence. This can help reduce chances of resistance developing if the tumour does develop. It is also useful in killing any cancerous cells which have spread to other parts of the body. This is often effective as the newly growing tumours are fast-dividing, and therefore very susceptible.
Palliative chemotherapy is given without curative intent, but simply to decrease tumor load and increase life expectancy. For these regimens, a better toxicity profile is generally expected.
Most chemotherapy regimens require that the patient is capable to undergo the treatment. Performance status is often used as a measure to determine whether a patient can receive chemotherapy, or whether dose reduction is required.
The treatment can be physically exhausting for the patient. Current chemotherapeutic techniques have a range of side effects mainly affecting the fast-dividing cells of the body. Important common side-effects include (dependent on the agent):
- Hair loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Depression of the immune system hence (potentially lethal) infections and sepsis
- Secondary neoplasms
Immunosuppression and myelosuppression
Virtually all chemotherapeutic regimens can cause depression of the immune system, often by paralysing the bone marrow and leading to a decrease of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The latter two, when they occur, are improved with blood transfusion. Neutropenia (a decrease of the neutrophil granulocyte count below 0.5 x 109/litre) can be improved with synthetic G-CSF (granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, e.g. filgrastim, lenograstim, Neupogen®, Neulasta®.)
In very severe myelosuppression, which occurs in some regimens, almost all the bone marrow stem cells (cells which produce white and red blood cells) are destroyed, meaning allogenic or autologous bone marrow cell transplants are necessary. (In autologous BMTs, cells are removed from the patient before the treatment, multiplied and then re-injected afterwards; in allogenic BMTs the source is a donor.) However, some patients still develop diseases because of this interference with bone marrow.
Nausea and vomiting
Stimulation of the vomiting center results in the coordination of responses from the diaphragm, salivary glands, cranial nerves, and gastrointestinal muscles to produce the interruption of respiration and forced expulsion of stomach contents known as retching and vomiting. The vomiting center is stimulated directly by afferent input from the vagal and splanchnic nerves, the pharynx, the cerebral cortex, cholinergic and histamine stimulation from the vestibular system, and efferent input from the chemoreceptor trigger zone (CTZ). The CTZ is in the area postrema, outside the blood-brain barrier, and is thus susceptible to stimulation by substances present in the blood or cerebral spinal fluid. The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin stimulate the vomiting center indirectly via stimulation of the CTZ.
The 5-HT3 inhibitors are the most effective antiemetics and constitute the single greatest advance in the management of nausea and vomiting in patients with cancer. These drugs are designed to block one or more of the signals that cause nausea and vomiting. The most sensitive signal during the first 24 hours after chemotherapy appears to be 5-HT3. Blocking the 5-HT3 signal is one approach to preventing acute emesis (vomiting), or emesis that is severe, but relatively short-lived. Approved 5-HT3 inhibitors include: dolasetron (Anzemet®), granisetron (Kytril®), and ondansetron (Zofran®). The newest 5-HT3 inhibitor, Aloxi® (palonosetron), has a distinct advantage over the other 5-HT3 inhibitors because, in addition to preventing acute nausea and vomiting, Aloxi® also prevents delayed nausea and vomiting, which occurs during the 2-5 days after treatment. Aloxi® is the only drug in its class that is approved by the FDA for the treatment of delayed nausea and vomiting.
Some studies and patient groups claim that the use of cannabinoids derived from marijuana during chemotherapy greatly reduces the associated nausea and vomiting, and enables the patient to eat. Some synthetic derivatives of the active substance in marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) such as Marinol may be practical for this application.
Other side effects
In particularly large tumors, such as large lymphomas, some patients develop tumor lysis syndrome from the rapid breakdown of malignant cells. Although prophylaxis is available and is often initiated in patients with large tumors, this is a dangerous side-effect which can lead to death if left untreated.
Chemotherapy may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and occasionally leads to secondary cancer.
- Gene therapy
- Experimental cancer treatments
- Chemotherapy regimens